I read Drood in a state of perpetual anticipation last week, expecting some kind of terrible and dramatic conclusion, only to end up feeling gypped. As a book about Wilkie Collins’ opium addiction, it’s fairly interesting, though I would have liked to know more about his most significant hallucination, the “Other Wilkie.” As a book about the inspiration for Charles Dickens’ last novel, it’s only mediocre. And as an examination of fear in literature, it’s quite interesting.
I tend to think of horror as something that sometimes, but not necessarily, overlaps with fear. The idea of a lady with considerably tusks stalking up and down a stairwell and occasionally attacking the occupants of the residence is pretty awful to think about, but I’m not concerned that it’s going to happen to me. Similarly, I find the events of the Holocaust nauseating and essentially impossible to comprehend. But I don’t harbor serious concerns that I will be the victim of a similar effort at extermination. On the other hand, I find the possibility of the kind of murder Collins contemplates for much of the book simultaneously horrifying, and something I do think of as a frightening possibility, probably because I watch too many crime shows.
I tend not to find entertainment rooted solely in disgust-based horror engaging or watchable. I don’t find the events of movies like the Saw franchise plausibly frightening, but I’ve got no desire to watch them go down, either. I am not entertained by seeing disgusting, sadistic things happen to other people. If I’m going to watch that happen, I usually need some sort of moral reckoning, though the scale isn’t necessarily critical: the personal revelation of The Last King of Scotland, which I found hard to watch in sections, was definitely enough. Art that’s more about fear than about depictions of violence is harder to identify, I think. Zodiac works on that level, I think, because it’s not simply about fear of murder. It’s about fear of failure, of insignificance.
Drood is about some of those kinds of fear, mostly about fear of human capacity for evil. Wilkie’s scared of—and intrigued by—the possibility that Charles Dickens has committed a murder. He is scared of what will happen if he kills Dickens, and perhaps even more frightened of what will happen if he doesn’t. He fears the exposure of his domestic situations, the loss of his literary powers, being forgotten by history. By putting those fears on a scale, the book makes murder seem more accessible, just another bad thing that might happen in a potential litany of bad things.
But I think the book ultimately fails by retreating into ambiguity. I assume that the doubt about what had actually happened, and what is just Wilkie’s addiction-induced hallucinations is meant to leave readers nervous and uncertain, itchy with fear. Instead, it just feels vague. We don’t actually have an expanded sense of the capacities of these two great men for evil. And given how long dead they are, it’s hard to fear them, or what may have been their collective phantasm.